Project/Object’s Frank Zappa repertoire nostalgic for Swarmius’ composer Joseph Martin Waters and old high school buddy

Friday night’s (Oct. 21) Cutting Room pairing of Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston with San Diego electronic ensemble Swarmius was a dream bill—but only for two dreamers in the room.

That would be me and Joseplh Martin Waters, the professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University—and the acclaimed composer-performer who conceived Swarmius. For the Cutting Room gig Swarmius was made up of conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and guests Gene Pritsker (guitar) the artist Mark Kostabi, whose artwork graces the Cutting Room walls, and who also composes and plays piano.

The term “trans-classical” has been created to describe the music of Swarmius, and it does in fact serve up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, heavy on classical, jazz, rock and electronics and performed by the monster musicians the concept requires. His Cutting Room set focused on new material from the forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical, and like preceding Swarmius recordings, is surprisingly accessible, with Joe’s conducting (without a baton) while programming from an Apple laptop onstage with his instrumentalists: You can actually follow the development of his complicated compositions easily just by watching the emotional drama and intensity in his hands and face as he conducts, said compositions including, at the Cutting Room, Trans-Classical‘s “instant gratification single” “EeOoEe,” which has just been released digitally ahead of the album.

That’s right, I still call him Joe, because he was just Joe Waters back at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Class of 1970, albeit a musical whiz kid even then, when his band was Spindlebean—a loose aggregate of musicians, and friends (and at least one stoner) who sang along to Joe’s Zappa-like lyrics and melodies. So it was extraordinary indeed to be sitting next to Joe at the Cutting Room, 46 years later, listening to longtime Zappa band veterans vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis and keyboardist Don Preston, now 84, play the music of Frank Zappa.

“The first Zappa album that really caught my attention was Uncle Meat,” said Joe afterward, referring to the 1969 double album. “This I listened to obsessively with my friends while we were experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics in high school, and it became a central playlist of our little community. But my all-time favorite was We’re Only in It for the Money [1968]. I found the album cover and the title shocking, and was incredulous that it could be lampooning the gods of popular music–the Beatles–jabbing and belittling their generation-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already achieved iconic status.”

He continued: “The first time I heard We’re Only in It for the Money I was tripping on acid, and the ‘through-composed’ album structure, where one song seamlessly merged into the next, and where text and composition, social commentary, acoustic instruments and electronics all swirled around together and through each other, was a deep aesthetic revelation.”

Joe recalled attending his first Zappa concert sometime around the release of his classic 1969 Hot Rats album.

“I remember sneaking into a big music festival, climbing over the fence to see the band! I found the music on Hot Rats to be generally intriguing and aesthetically challenging, in places puzzling, and inspirational. I think my favorite work was ‘Peaches en Regalia.’ But otherwise, I had not attended a Zappa concert since seeing the original band sometime in the early ‘70s at a music festival in Milwaukee. It was the second time I had seen them, and the period when they were doing pieces like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ so it must’ve been somewhere around 1974 [when the song was released as a single]. It was in a big auditorium, and I was seated far away from the stage–and, frankly I didn’t really like that music very much: I found it mildly funny but musically uninteresting compared to the earlier music that I had loved and listened to incessantly. And I didn’t particularly like the virtuosic, modal-based guitar solos that Zappa was putting out in those days. I found them harmonically uninteresting and long winded.”

Indeed, after that Milwaukee Zappa show, Joe’s interest in Zappa waned. “Soon after I was pursuing my own formal music education, which took me far away from popular music for the better part of the next decade.”

My own interest in Frank Zappa, however, only increased around this time, especially since I began writing a couple years later. I’d see him many times after moving to New York in ’82, including his annual Halloween shows at the Beacon Theatre. I even met him a few times, interviewed him on the phone, got to know his late wife Gail a bit, and son Dweezil—for whom I wrote his first Zappa Plays Zappa tour bio. I met his younger brother Ahmet, too, when he and his wife signed children’s books at New York’s BookExpo last year at the Javits Center.

But back to Joe.

“I never lost complete interest in Zappa,” he said, “and especially became reinvested when he achieved recognition by the esteemed French avant-garde classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, the brilliant, belligerent, influential and outspoken champion of, and contributor to, the notorious mid-century genre of classical music that came to be known as ‘post-World War II integral serialism.’ This genre involved the application of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method to every musical parameter. Literally every note in these compositions had a complete and individualized set of performance instructions, which resulted in intense gibberish for both performer and listener. The aesthetic philosophy underlying this music was Schoenberg’s dictum ‘If it’s art it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people it’s not art,’ which dismisses all of the music beloved the world over, including the Beatles, Gershwin, and Dylan. Dylan’s recent anointment with the Nobel prize in literature is a repudiation of this snobbery, but the fire still rages in the forests of academia.

“Boulez, in the early 1950s, with his sharp tongue eviscerated and destroyed any composer who dared to stray outside integral serialism’s incomprehensible non-melodies, non-harmonies, and non-rhythms, which were the result of overthinking and misunderstanding not only the neurophysiological mechanisms by which organized sound accrues meaning and emotional agency, but also the role and responsibility of the artist in the context of a majority proletarian culture. So his recognition of Zappa represented a turnabout of sorts, though of course Zappa had since childhood always had one foot in the classical avant-garde: On his early albums he had a quote from Edgard Varèse, another French composer from earlier in the 20th century—‘The present day composer refuses to die.’”

Joe himself had been “drenched in classical music of the 20th century, a large body of work which by and large has and had been completely ignored by the listening public as well as the community of professional classical musicians and conductors, but which was promoted exclusively by the composers employed as professors in the academies of music throughout Europe, the U.S. and all western looking music institutions throughout the world. By then I was already struggling to reconcile my populist rock band roots with the ivory tower aesthetic vested on me by music school. I listened to The Yellow Shark [Zappa’s 1993 avant-garde classical album with the German Ensemble Modern, his last album release prior to his death that year, for which Boulez was among those thanked in the liner notes] a few times and put it aside, planning to revisit it later–but still haven’t gotten back to it 23 years after.

“So all this was my mind set when I sat down after our set at the Cutting Room, to listen to Project/Object, fronted by the great vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, who joined Zappa in 1978, and Don Preston, who played with Zappa from 1966 to 1974–the years during which I was a rapt teenage fan. In short, I didn’t know what to expect. And what I discovered, to my delight, was a huge range of repertoire that spanned about 20 years as far as I know of the Zappa catalog, all played extremely well by an ensemble of eight musicians, who had been on tour for the past month or so and were super tight, and at the same time, super relaxed.”

Yes, it really was a great show. They did one of my faves from Frank & The Mothers of Invention’s 50-year-old 1966 debut album Freak Out! —“Who Are the Brain Police?”, also “Down at Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage and “Call Any Vegetable” from Just Another Band in L.A., which had my pals Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) from The Turtles on background vocals.

Special mention goes to Don Preston, who has 20 years on me, somehow. Just so great on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from We’re Only In It for the Money, even playing a solo by tapping on his cellphone—a solo so hot his phone erupted into flame. Joe Jackson was in the house and seemed impressed, though I wasn’t, since my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 can do the same thing.

“There was a wonderful warm, friendly vibe that exuded from the band as a whole and from the individual members, who were open and welcoming, supportive and curious about Swarmius,” said Joe, and sure enough, Project/Object’s vocalist/guitarist Andre Cholmondeley gave the band a big plug at the start of their set.

“I also discovered myself liking a lot of the repertoire that I had been so dismissive of in the mid-‘70s, such as Joe’s Garage. I think I was too young to understand the understatement and artistic brilliance underneath the overt sarcasm, humorous allegory and punchy rock grooves. All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear with the pleasure of hearing fine musicians deeply committed to music that came from a singular genius. I have a newly deepened respect for Zappa, and I am looking forward to revisiting, and re-listening to—finally!—Yellow Shark!”

And I’m looking forward to seeing Dweezil’s 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F @%K He Wants show Sunday night, the night before Halloween, at, where else? The Beacon!

Late Don Buchla’s pioneering electronic music placed in context by Joseph Martin Waters

Acclaimed composer-performer Joseph Martin Waters, whose “trans-classical” ensemble Swarmius serves up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, had a special understanding of the late electronic music pioneer Don Buchla.

“He invented brilliant and original electronic interfaces and synthesizers that explored new ways for electronic music performers to attain the subtlety and richness of expression possible with traditional instruments,” says Waters, himself an electronic music composer, and professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University.

“Think for a moment how difficult it is to play the violin,” continues Waters. “There are many jokes about the horrible noises emerging from beginning musicians torturing their instruments and their parents! But the slow mastery of the wild little beast transforms the violin over many years eventually into a powerful artistic weapon in the hands of a magician, one able to pull and twist emotions like salt water taffy.”

In addition to composing, Buchla, who died Sept. 14 at 79, manufactured and mastered his own instruments, including a random voltage-controlled modular synthesizer that he called Source of Uncertainty. His goal was to create new sounds out of his devices, these also including the Music Easel (he named a quintet of Music Easel players the Electric Weasel Ensemble), Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, and the Buchla Box.

“People of the Amazon believed their instruments to be supernatural creatures,” notes Waters. “Those are the kinds of electronic music instruments Buchla aimed for. They were rare and hand-built, and prized by those who could get their hands on them. I was fortunate to have access to one called Thunder about 15 years ago for a few months: It was a midi interface essentially, but quite unique in that it required you to put your palms on the surface–which looked like something out of the hieroglyphics in an Egyptian pyramid, or maybe Mayan Stone carvings–and it reacted to the pressure points from various fingers and various points of the hand. It was very cool!”

Waters returns to New York with Swarmius this Friday for a show at the Cutting Room, opening for Frank Zappa alumni Ike Willis and Don Preston and their current undertaking Project/Object: The Music Of Frank Zappa featuring Willis and Preston. The Zappa-influenced Waters’ Swarmius, in a quintet configuration (conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and keyboardist/vocalist Toni James) likened by the founder to “a kind of extreme sports for music,” will perform new material from its forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical–likely in the mold of previous Swarmius recordings combining syncopated Afro-American rhythms of rock, jazz, hip hop and salsa fused with classical and layered with complex polyrhythmic textures.

YouTube Discoveries: Mendelbaum’s ‘Since I Met Her’

Odd things can come to mind when you’re up at three in the morning.

Like snippets of long forgotten songs, so long ago forgotten that you have no memory of anything other than the snippet.

Friday night/Saturday morning it was “Since I met her, my whole life/Since I met her, my whole life has changed.”

No idea where it came from. No idea the title, no idea the artist. No idea when.

Thank God for YouTube. Then again, I lucked out: Of course I looked for “Since I Met Her,” which turned out to be the title of a song by Mendelbaum, a Madison band in the late ’60s that I remember as The Mendelbaum Blues Band, that I saw back when I was in high school or just out of it in 1970. I was able to find some info on them on a couple sites including Longshot’s Blog, which relates how they moved to San Francisco and cut an unreleased demo album for Warner Bros., as Mendelbaum, in 1970.

The demo surfaced on a two-disc set that came out in 2003, the second disc being some live stuff from San Francisco in 1969. “How in the world this band didn’t take off back in 1969 is beyond me,” said Longshot.

Me, too. “Since I Met Her” is everything I didn’t remember other than the chorus: Kind of a neo-psychedelic garage rock Chicago, heavier on keys than horns and with Midwest arena rock harmonies—and that killer chorus. I’m sure there’s some music theory term for why the repetition of “my whole life” and addition of “has changed” is so powerful. It carries a certain woeful finality in that the poor guy’s life has changed, and for the worse–that he can never return to who he was before he met her.

My high school pal Joseph Waters—Joe, back then—would know, now that he’s a music professor at San Diego State College, not to mention leader of modern music group Swarmius. As coincidence would have it, he happened to be in New York when I had my “Since I Met Her” epiphany, here to see one of his Swarmius band members perform at Carnegie Hall.

Joe kind of remembered them as well, kind of in context of his high school band Spindlebean.

“I remember a conversation that the band had at one point where we realized that we had perhaps unconsciously modeled the name after Mendlebaum, who were the bigger-than-life local gods of the rock scene and who loomed high above us as wild young kids getting started,” Joe recalled. “That conversation happened maybe a year or two after Spindlebean came into being. And the name Spindlebean put the whole thing into sort of a comic twist, which would’ve been appropriate for our view of the world–taking the wind out of the idea of fame. There was a theme song of course, about Spindlebean–who occupied a high place in our concocted mythology. We imagined Spindlebean to be an ancient female with withered limbs, like vines of a bean stock, and married to the supreme god of our ’60s-fueled universe, Harvey Jellobrain. We used to amuse ourselves on cold winter school nights by going to the public library downtown and looking in phone books from around the world to see if there actually was somebody named Harvey Jellobrain! The closest we got was a Harvey Jellineck who lived in Belgium. That was quite a find!”

There was also a Harvey Kellogg, unknown, perhaps, to Joe. We went to Madison Memorial. Harvey went to Madison West. I met him in a heavy dope haze and heard his name wrong, Henry Rollick, if I remember correctly, now. Poor guy was stuck with Harvey Kellogg for the rest of his life (which I don’t think was long) thanks to my drug habit. He didn’t deserve it, but it did fit him.

But I digress. For the record, Mendelbaum was Chris Michie, guitar, lead vocals; Keith Knudsen, drums, vocals; Tom LaVarda, bass, vocals; George Cash, sax, vocals; and J.D. Sharp, organ. According to Longshot, Michie died two months before the CDs came out in 2003, and Knudsen died two years later.

But it was Tom LaVarda whose name stood out. Sounded awfully familiar. I realized why over at another blog, Wisconsinology, in a post about Butch Vig.

My old friend Butch, you may know, was Nirvana’s producer, other production clients including Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Green Day. I knew him as drummer for Spooner, a great late ’70s Madison new wavey pop band that broke up after I left town for New York in the early ’80s. I was thanked on their first album.

Butch later started Garbage with Spooner’s Doug (later Duke) Erikson, but in between he was in a band called Fire Town, which recorded a couple albums for Atlantic. Their bass player was…Tom LaVarda. But LaVarda, I learned from Wisconsinology, had been in a mid-’70s Madison rock band that I remember, but don’t remember seeing, Buzz Gunderson. But I do remember a band he was in after, a great country band called Out of the West with Beverly Jean. I definitely would have known him then, for we covered the band heavily at The Madcity Music Sheet, a local music paper that I edited before splitting for New York.

Anyway, “Since I Met Her,” while on YouTube, can’t be embedded. So here’s the link.

As it turns out, I never heard the recording, because while it was recorded in 1970, it didn’t really exist until 2003. In other words, I remember that snippet of a chorus solely on hearing it live.

It was that good—and still is.